Sunday, November 30, 2008

Foreigners, Caryl Phillips.

I waited with anticipation for the paperback version of Foreigners to appear. It did not do so, however, in Borders or Waterstones. Its absence in Borders didn’t’ surprise me. But Waterstones? Especially, when the staff kept saying it was due…especially when the stock computer eventually showed 30, “High Stock” level, but not a single copy was on the bookshelves. Finally, it turned out that the books were in stock, yet all had been shelved as non-fiction in the Biography section. That error (?) is a good place to begin a consideration of the book.

Foreigners comprises three novellas. Each deals with a real life. The first, “Doctor Johnson’s Watch”, reveals the life of Johnson’s Black manservant, Francis Barber. The second, “Made in Wales”, relates the main events in the life of the Black boxer, Randolph Turpin. And the final novella examines the case of David Oluwale, a Black immigrant worker persecuted by the police. The three works span from 1752 to 2006 and chart, with some irony, the extent to which a Black individual is always a foreigner within the diaspora. Their content is biographical, without a doubt, but Phillips is interested in something more than biography. His concern throughout the three novellas —or is this a novel?— is the narrative voice and the truths that it might tell.

Reviews of Foreigners, in the UK, have been enthusiastic. David Lammy, in The Guardian, has referred to how Phillips “masterfully illustrat[es]” the concept of the Other in society. This is true. But much of his review (as is often the way with book reviewers) makes the novel yield the political truths that he wishes. So, Foreigners is about “misfits” and how “talent goes unfulfilled”. The novel holds many pertinent messages about crime and disadvantaged youth. Lammy’s is a party-political reading of the novel; and only a partly successful one. In a similar social vein, Margaret Busby, reviewing for The Independent, viewed the novel through Orwell’s eyes, and his fascination with how “foreigners” and racism emerge with the concept of nation-state. As a Black foreigner who made it as a publisher, she found the novel a “disconsolate book” too much involved with the downward trajectory of Black lives. In each case, the reviewers mentioned make the book yield what they wish it to yield. The irony, here, is that is one of Phillips’ interests in Foreigners. How do we read Black lives? How do we read lives within novels? The readings of Lammy and Barber are somewhat simplistic for they impose upon Foreigners patterns of thought: Black lives are about not fitting in and about failing to make-the-grade.

At the close of her review, Busby faults the final novella for “not being easy to follow.” Writing in The New York Times, Adam Goodheart concurred, finding the writing loose and “marred by long, dreary and seemingly pointless digressions”. Looking in Busby’s direction, he also criticised Foreigners for being negative and not showing a positive side to Black Britain. (Mary Seacole prospered in it and Fredrick Douglass applauded it). As the director of the American Experience in Washington, Goodheart’s review adopted an arrogant historical attitude towards Phillips' novel. Such proves him to be a good White American in line with Black American thought. Yippee! It also proves him to be a disastrous reader of the contemporary (English) novel!

In 1967, one of the great experimentalists of the last century, William Golding, published a novel as three linked novellas. This was The Pyramid. In essence, Foreigners is a set of linked narratives. They spark off one another, rubbing like flints, opening flickering questions. In each, the narrative voice is key. Foreigners is a fine fictional experiment. (Something entirely lost upon reviewers like Goodheart, from across The Pond, who seem to lack direction when it comes to fictional experiences). The first novel is a finely crafted masterpiece. Written in the style of the C18 novel, the life of Francis Barber is told with clarity. Stylistically, the pitch is exact, presenting the arrogant and unified voice of its narrator through an English that never falls into pastiche.

“…there were soon few within the doctor’s circle, who found either sympathy or concern for the negro’s welfare. Within a few years of his arrival in Lichfield, the careless Barber, had also, much to the dismay of his few remaining supporters, managed to fully deplete the capital which had been set aside to provide him with an annuity.” (p.21).

Such measured prose could be belong to either Equiano or Fielding, yet what betrays its narrator continually as White is his emphasis on capital and the racist assumptions of the C18: Barber lacked the rational guidance of the White race. This section of Foreigners builds towards a sentimental gesture worthy of Sterne.

The first novella, in Foreigners, closing at it does with the severe illness of Frances Barber, brings the point of writing to around 1800. Historically, the reader is at a liminal point, as one century becomes another. The second novella recreates a similar borderline. It closes with a mention of a statue erected to the boxer Randolph Turpin, in 2001, and a 2006 interview with his daughters, Annette and Charmaine. The style in this second section is typical of C20 journalistic prose, rather detached, without character, but is transformed in the final pages as Turpin is seen through the eyes of his family and the daughters are allowed to speculate on the statue erected in his honour. One tantalising aspects of Golding’s novelist technique was the reversal of perspective at the last minute. And this thought would appear to be in Phillip’s mind in the first two novellas: narrator one is presented with a meeting that could have transformed his understanding, yet he falls back into the prejudiced beliefs of his time: it would have been better for Barber to become Quashey once more and have returned to Jamaica because England was unsuitable for the Black temperament; narrator two begins to see that his narrative of Turpin is a cliché and emotionally deeper than he has described. Written from the outside, the two novellas are the opposite of the form that Phillips has avoided: the emotional first-person slave narrative. They look upon two enslaved (though supposedly liberated) lives to investigate the consciousness of the narrator and the kind of fictions that different centuries favour.

In the final novella, there is a deliberate lack of unity. Unity of voice is what the narrators in the first two novellas achieve. A comparison between Kesper Aspden’s Nationality:Wog and “Northern Lights”, which deal with the same material, helps to illustrate the interests in the closing of Foreigners. Aspden’s factual work is written as a piece of crime investigating, a surveying of evidence, from which a portrait of David Oluwale emerges. The book is intelligently and sympathetically written. But more interests Phillips than the case of David Oluwale: his interest is in history and the dislocation that occurs when personal history collides with it. Just as the first two novellas were held together by a unity of voice, so the third novella becomes a collection of fragmented voices, all of which struggle to cohere as they mime the problem of identity and coherence within the diaspora. Reading the third novella is like reading vocal points in time—from scattered islands. The voices range from the emotional “I” of the opening character:

“I remember he always used to wear a big black coat…” (p.167).

To the distanced, sympathetic voice of a narrator:

“David, do you remember this girl?

This is a creative, narrative voice, liberated in a way that the voices in novellas one and two were not:

“Leaving home. Yoruba boy. With your dreams of being an engineer locked up in your heart.” (p.173)

The sea, which is a constant image throughout Foreigners (Barber is forced onto HMS Princess Royal, Turpin crosses to America on the Queen Mary), becomes an image of dramatic terror. At the most extreme, there are the voices from crime reports, journals and historical accounts. A welter of voices—even the voices in street graffiti—becomes a tide of questions. The de-centering of the final narrative is a piece of triumphant post-modernism, though that triumph is continually questioned as Phillips pursues questions about identity and the kind of identities that fiction might create.

What makes Foreigners a great work of fiction is the thoroughness of its research and how fact is liberated into fiction. Or more accurately, how Phillips studies how fact can be liberated into fiction such that new, living perspectives arise from old prejudices.